Thursday, June 17, 2010

Liberty and civil society

[Note: originally written as a contribution to the Cato Unbound symposium on Philip Blond's Redy Toryism. Russell Arben Fox's reply to the symposium, and I guess mainly to me, is here, and it's of course a much better and more interesting defense of an idea like Red Toryism than was the piece of Blond's to which we had to reply.]

My old friend Patrick Deneen writes:

"The contemporary conspiracy between State and Market -- apparently locked in battle, but more fundamentally consonant in their hostility toward, and evisceration of, the institutions of civil society -- mutually reinforce each other, strengthening simultaneously commercial and State concentrations of power that recent events reveal to have been deeply intertwined. Both are based upon the radically individuated anthropology of classical liberalism, an anthropology that both necessarily precedes and ultimately succors the progressivist liberalism that it purports to oppose. ... The only true locus of human liberty is to be found in the institutions of civil society, yet our dominant philosophies both regard its requirements for stability, self-sacrifice and generational continuity as an obstacle to individual liberty."

I can't imagine the time horizons over which the purported changes have happened. The civil society that is a semi-distinct sphere of human society, the order of intermediate and sometimes-voluntary associations that mostly lack either coercive power over outsiders or expressly commercial purposes, isn't any older than the state and the market as distinct spheres. Like them, it arises in the world of modern social differentiation. The medieval church was, to our eye, quite state-like; the medieval guild looked a great deal like a participant in the market. From the time that civil society in this sense is really identifiable as a sphere-- the time when The Church became churches which were required to peacefully coexist, when one of the guilds evolved into the Freemasons and others were replaced by fraternal societies that did not regulate the labor market, when the intergenerational corporate form became democratized and demonopolized and made accessible to voluntary associations, and so on, in other words from the 18th or early 19th century onward-- there has always been augmentation of material wealth on the market and there has always been an increase in the coercive power of the state. And yet the grand narrative of the decline of civil society is, according to its leading empirical scholar Robert Putnam, the story of a civic-minded Greatest Generation inadvertently raising baby boomers who watched too much television. The pessimistic take on civil society is that it flourished and its forms proliferated until the 1950s, 60s, or 70s. (The optimistic take is that it flourishes still, and that its forms continue to proliferate, even if fewer hours are being volunteered for the Rotary.) The timing matches neither an unusucal increase in state power (certainly not compared with the 1910s or the 1930s and 40s!) nor an unusual increase in market power.

The life of religious institutions in particular is somewhat more complicated. One of the great institutional accomplishments of American civil society, the Catholic school system, has indeed fallen victim to the market. The system rested on the service of men and, especially, women who opted to forego market rewards for lifelong religious-education vocations. The opportunity costs of that decision have risen dramatically, especially for women who had been excluded from the labor market altogether. It is unclear whether the system is sustainable on current trends. If it is not, there will be a loss to the social world. But it will not be because of, nor will it engender, a loss of liberty.

Liberty is productive of civil society. The tremendous creativity of nineteenth-century Americans in creating churches, voluntary associations, universities, and fraternal societies is a testament to this. And the existence of a rich and vibrant civil society is a sign of freedom. I do not believe that a society that lacked such a civil society would be a free one-- but the lack would be more symptom than cause. Free persons do create and inhabit and maintain and perpetuate organizations and institutions. They do so partly under the umbrella of a coercive state that allows the institutions to be intermediate, rather than rival armed camps enforcing the rights of the members. And they do so partly with the wealth and leisure that the market makes possible. There are, of course, countervailing effects and complex relationships. But there is nothing like a simple inverse relationship between civil society and a reifiied sum of "state plus market."

The phrase "civil society" is a complicated one. It suggests the self-governing city or city-state, free of feudal power or coercive religious jurisdiction. In early modernity, this sense of a complete political society with rough equality before the law and excluding religious violence becamse generalized to the entities we now think of as nation-states-- the Hobbesian, Weberian, Westphalian states that overpowered coercive church jurisdiction and suppressed the possibility of religious civil war. And so, in the writings of someone like John Locke, civil society is political society, theself-contained and unified political society that can apply a general law and that excludes external (e.g. church) claims of political power. There was an important sense in which that society offered freedom-- freedom from the inquisitors and their Protestant equivalents. That is, civil society-as-state suppressed the power of intermediate institutions. In the 18th century, thinkers such as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith came to imagine social spheres distinct from political society-- a society, and an economy, that could persist over time and survive changes in political regime. (Scottish society and the Scottish economy changed, but did not disappear, when the Scottish state disappeared into the British.) That, too, was an advance in our understanding of freedom-- our social lives are not wholly constituted by our political lives. Hegel was later to use the phrase to refer almost entirely to the market, under an appropriate legal regime-- the legal regime that recognizes free bourgeois citizens, legally autonomous and interacting with each other as equals. That is the social world of liberal agents creating new voluntary associations as easily, and with the same rules, as they create economic firms or political parties.

To say that liberty is only possible in civil society is an interesting thought when it admits of this complexity. But when it treats the non-political non-economic domain as the whole meaning of the phrase, it is misleading at best.